Thursday, June 08, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival

The 22nd annual edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival unspooled 18 films over four days last weekend. The festival seems to get bigger and better every year, with a rotating roster of musicians from around the world accompanying the films.

Somebody once described artistic director Anita Monga (above) to me as "The one person in the world who knows where the only existing print of an obscure film is hiding in someone's attic." As programmer of the Castro Theatre for decades during the 1970s through 1990s, she probably brought more joy and interesting movies to my life than anyone else. As programmer for the Silent Film Festival and Eddie Muller's annual Noir Film Festival, she continues as one of the reigning cultural treasures of San Francisco.

Saturday afternoon I saw a brand new restoration of the complete 1920 Outside The Law, a crime thriller set in San Francisco's Chinatown and Knob Hill (as the titles put it). Directed by Tod Browning of Dracula and Freaks fame, the film starred Priscilla Dean, his leading lady for nine movies that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Crookdom." Her looks of contempt at her wannabe lover while holed up in the Knob Hill hideaway were almost the highlight of the film, but there was also Lon Chaney as an Irish crime boss and a Chinese servant, massive shootouts on the streets of San Francisco, a society ball with San Francisco swells, and a demented boy actor with a bowl haircut who would bounce into the hideaway and insist on kissing everyone repeatedly on the lips. The most interesting twist was that the Chinese characters, even though portrayed by white men, are presented as wise and judicious Confucian advisors to cops and criminals alike rather than the usual sinister Orientals.

What elevates this festival to another level is the musicianship of the accompanists, including my personal favorite Stephen Horne, who usually plays solo on a grand piano while occasionally pulling out a flute or an accordion.

He was joined by percussionist Frank Bockius on a drum set (above right) for Outside The Law, an inspired choice for the fast-paced scenes of mayhem.

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